Eric Idle’s dad survived an especially dangerous World War II gig — tailgunner in the RAF — only to get killed in a truck accident while hitchhiking home after the war. Eric was two years old. It was Christmas Eve. Perhaps, he writes, “That’s why I wrote the song, ‘F*** Christmas.’”
If you can muster wit for this degree of tragedy, you can muster wit for anything, and Idle did, writing the world’s jauntiest crucifixion ditty. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” the title of that Monty Python song from The Life of Brian and of Idle’s new memoir, turns out to be a fairly helpful directive for getting by, and Idle has stuck to it these last 75 years. He calls himself a “failed pessimist.” The book is hilarious, so you need not burden yourself with the task of trying to learn from it, but Idle’s rose-tinted spectacles are available for the borrowing. He’s an existential optimist.
He’s also exceptionally deft with a joke. Many a funnyman loses something when he turns to books — there’s something different about how we process jokes that are written as opposed to performed — but Idle gains. “At fourteen I wanted to play guitar very badly. By fifteen I did.” That would sound corny in a standup routine, but it’s charming on paper. He talks about a performer who starred in “a one-man show where he outnumbered the audience.” Yet Idle notes also that one of his most beloved routines, “Nudge Nudge” (a favorite of Elvis Presley’s), isn’t funny at all on paper: All the humor is in the delivery.
Ardently pacifist, and iconoclastic, Idle nevertheless got some useful tutelage about the Left from a 1963 visit to Berlin. “The bleak industrial workers’ paradise,” he recalls, “did so much to make one grateful for the West, where you could be left-wing without having to suffer for it.” After that sobering experience, Idle doesn’t have much to say about politics, except for a few obligatory lines of contempt for Donald Trump, but he notes, accurately, that the biggest political imbroglio he ever faced derived from a misunderstanding. Life of Brian was unfairly tagged as mocking Jesus Christ. What it did mock was cultists. Hollywood blanched anyway. Potential financial backers reacted “as if we were trying to sell them Springtime for Hitler.” Yet the actual $4.5 million budget came entirely from Idle’s friend George Harrison, whose accountant structured the outlay as . . . a tax write-off. So Life of Brian wound up sharing the same fate as Springtime for Hitler. Except Harrison somehow didn’t go to jail.
The movie’s climactic number, for which Idle wrote the tune as well as the words, is today the most-requested song at funerals in the U.K., or so the author claims. It didn’t quite work for the movie until Idle hit on the idea of putting it in the mouth of his character Mr. Cheeky, who was based on one of the irrepressibly cheerful Cockney electricians who used to work on the Pythons’ sets. These guys were “ridiculously optimistic in all sorts of distressing circumstances.” And distressing it was to shoot the movie. Right before the gang left for Tunisia to begin filming in 1978, Paul McCartney threw a party to celebrate the movie The Buddy Holly Story. Idle ran into his friend Keith Moon, The Who’s drummer, who enthusiastically quoted a line he was to perform in Life of Brian: He was set to play the mad prophet in the movie. Instead, Moon had a glass of champagne followed by an overdose of the alcoholism drug Heminevrin and choked to death on his vomit.
Idle is amused to observe how his best-known song took on a life of its own, long after the movie, and finally became a top-ten hit single in Britain in 1991. Soccer fans began singing it when their teams were getting blown out. During the Falkland Islands War, sailors on the H.M.S. Sheffield sang it while they awaited rescue as their ship was sinking. Idle’s ink-black irony provided the perfect musical merger of the British stiff-upper-lip tradition and the national affinity for silliness. Idle would go on to sing it at fellow Python Graham Chapman’s funeral in 1989, and for the Queen (who laughed merrily) at a 1991 Royal Variety Performance, and again at the close of the London Olympics in 2012. Somehow the number became England’s comedy national anthem, and fittingly enough, Idle, despite living mostly in France and California in recent decades, remains steadfastly a proud citizen of his native isle: “Born and raised under the bombs of Hitler . . . An Englishman, a proud Elizabethan, heir to the tradition of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wilde, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Dickens, a cricket-loving survivor of the Sixties and a member of one of the most-admired comedy groups in the world.” He looks forward to singing his own song at his own funeral. He even has his last words ready: “Say no more.”